The Domestication of Wolverine
The death of Wolverine is upon us, but what happened when he went from X-Men supporting character to box-office superstar?
Wolverine is already dead.
When John Romita first heard the word “wolverine,” he wasn’t quite sure what it meant. In fact, according to a 2009 Newsday interview, the then art director for Marvel Comics thought that a wolverine was “a female wolf.” Soon, he would help design a character that reflected what a wolverine truly was, a short, vicious carnivore.
When the man then known as “the Wolverine” debuted in The Incredible Hulk #180 in 1974, it would have been hard for the book’s creative team (Len Wein on writing duties, with Herb Trimpe on the pencils) to know what the character would look like twenty, let alone forty years down the road. Wolverine, created to play as an opposite to the large, blunt Hulk, would go on to rival his enemy’s popularity. After serving three issues with the Hulk, Wolverine wouldn’t appear again until Giant Size X-Men #1 in 1975, this time as a heroic, albeit angry, member of the new X-Men team.
And then everything changed.
Over the next half-decade, Wolverine rose to popularity as the mysterious wild card in the pages of The Uncanny X-Men, and by the time his solo miniseries came out in 1982, the comic book community was clamoring to learn where this beast had come from. He was bitter and maladjusted, so something must have happened in his past to make him this way. While the standard superhero thrives on dramatic irony, it was now the audience that knew less about the character than he did.
This was used particularly effectively in a few areas.
Readers were introduced to the idea that Logan was much older than he appeared to be. While we would soon know of adventures in World War II, Wolverine was shown to appear at the same age he was in the present. The possibility of Wolverine being even older, perhaps an immortal, seemed open. Wolverine could have been a legendary gladiator, a samurai, or a witness to Custer’s last stand. From what we did know of his militaristic past, it was clear that Wolverine was not always as good of a man as he was with the X-Men, and this kept us wondering just how bad he might have been.
It also allowed Wolverine to take less responsibility for what was occurring. He could retreat into his traumatic experiences or lash out without the consternation that would be put on a character like Spider-Man. Wolverine could revert to his more natural state at any point, making him a potential killer. In short, when Wolverine acted as a hero, it was more of a surprise than anything else.
Wolverine’s powers, and we’ll include his adamantium skeleton, added to this package. Potentially the greatest soldier who ever lived got that way by never turning back, thanks to the ability to fight through anything. A more brutal Captain America. A Superman without clear ethics.
Wolverine, at his best, was caught in a seemingly perpetual second act. A character who could be a great hero but was perhaps too damaged to ever actually achieve it. Because of this, perhaps unintentionally, he became the heart and soul of the X-Men. An idealist marred by the brutality of the real world. Not a superhero, but a political militant. As much a victim of the world as its savior. Feared and hated.
It’s the space between those boundaries where the character thrived. Readers connect (and continue to connect) with that lack of moral clarity. Wolverine is in love with his teammate’s wife and you root for Wolverine. Wolverine freaks out and slaughters his enemies and you root for Wolverine. Wolverine didn’t know who he was any more than you did.
In 1982, Chris Claremont and Frank Miller crafted the first Wolverine solo title as a four-issue limited series. As difficult as it is to imagine a comic rack without a Wolverine book on it, this was considered a big step for the character at the time. Opening with the now iconic “I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do best isn’t very nice,” the series took Wolverine from the Canadian wilderness to his now familiar second-home, Japan. No longer constrained by the X-Men, Wolverine was able to break out in a tale where he did exactly what he did best, the often forgotten explanation: “To Hunt. To Kill.”
While they offered the first significant glimpses into Wolverine’s past, Claremont and Miller still protected the mystery built into the character. At the end of the series, the duo left one of the biggest imprints on Wolverine of any creative team. Claremont would use the story to launch more arcs in Uncanny X-Men, and elements of the book can even be seen in James Mangold’s 2013 Wolverine movie, which took in over $400 million worldwide. With Wolverine suddenly the focus of much of the X-Men’s adventures, his popularity reached a fever pitch…and the time came to break him back out on his own. In 1988, Logan was given his own series plus the lion’s share of Marvel Comics Presents. Both comics would flesh out Wolverine’s story little by little, taking away from the original mystique (no, not her) but replacing it with even more specific questions.
Perhaps most famously, in 1991 we were introduced to a little military program called Weapon X. Much like Claremont and Miller before him, Barry Windsor-Smith (serving as both writer and illustrator), crafted what is now an essential volume in Wolverine’s history, serialized in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents. Also like Claremont and Miller, Windsor-Smith left as many questions as he had answered.
Then, they started being answered. Wolverine’s popularity became so great that his presence in ’90s Marvel Comics can only be described as pervasive. It became something of a joke amongst comic book fans that if a book was failing, Marvel would simply slap Wolverine on the cover and reveal another aspect of his increasingly convoluted history. By the end of the decade, Wolverine had lost his nose, got it back, lost his adamantium, got it back, got married, turned evil…and none of it seemed to matter much. All these revelations and lukewarm reinvigorations weakened the character.
Luckily, he was about to reach an entirely new audience.
In 2000, Wolverine was introduced to the general public in Bryan Singer’s X-Men. The blockbuster film took the most popular comic book character of the ’90s and made him into a household name. Speaking of household names, cast in the role was a thirty-year old 6′ 2” Australian singing and dancing machine named Hugh Jackman. Not exactly the “short, pugnacious” character portrayed in the comics, this decision (like most superhero casting) was not incredibly popular at the time.
This would, of course, change. Through seven films, Jackman helped to prove that it wasn’t the physical description of Wolverine that made him special, but the damaged hero searching for the truth that he has been denied his entire life. As Jackman himself said around the film’s release, “He’s a good guy, but he’s not a nice guy.” And just as the films took those elements from the comics, so would the comics slowly make Wolverine a little taller, a little more handsome…
Even the movies couldn’t resist the chance to delve into Wolverine’s backstory, though. While Logan’s on-screen origin was revealed in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the film was largely ignored in the following installments and has been potentially swept under the rug in the most recent entry, Days of Future Past. Maybe the Wolverine of the movies doesn’t have to deal with his past just yet, and that will probably lengthen his shelf life.
Meanwhile, back in the funny pages…Wolverine was about to get some steam again.
About a year after the first X-Men film, things changed again for Wolverine. In 2001’s event limited series Origin by Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada, and Paul Jenkins, Logan was given his official backstory and by the end of Grant Morrison’s tenure as writer of New X-Men, both audience and hero finally had a fairly solid idea of who he really was. This was fortified by the reclamation of his memory following the reality-warping Avengers/X-Men crossover, House of M.
Writers such as Grant Morrison, Joss Whedon, and Jason Aaron all utilized a new view on the immortal soldier. While once Wolverine was angry at those who took his memories, he was now angry about the life he had lived and about the people who he wronged. Though a different take on his past, Logan’s methods of dealing with it remained similar and extended his theoretical second act.
Like most things in comics, there is no single moment that defines an era. What you can pinpoint are moments where trends start. If we are to make an argument about where Wolverine finally enters his third act, it has to be the moment he is trusted enough by Captain America to join the Avengers. Here, the beast that could not be tamed was finally accepted as a member of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. While his portrayal in that respect is inconsistent, Wolverine: Weapon X and the re-launched X-Force are good examples of books keeping Logan firmly in his expected miserable state, and it wouldn’t be long before he was the (reasonably) responsible leader of the schools himself. Is it this what dulled Logan’s claws? In a way, yes.
Wolverine was usually written as kind of a dick, and considerably more violent than his teammates, whether they were X-Men or Avengers. However, Logan, now saddled by responsibility, can only go so many places. It takes a little ingenuity to get Wolverine one last hurrah.
Over the last year of the current ongoing series, writer Paul Cornell has woven what is supposed to be Logan’s final battle. After being infected by a virus that destroyed his healing factor, an actual “death of Wolverine” became a plausible story outcome. Sabretooth, returned from the dead himself, stands in opposition to his longtime foe.
Here Cornell and company first sent Logan into deep cover, and for a few issues he seemed, well, a bit “superior.” He cast away his relationships and appeared to return to selfish roots. This ruse was soon broken and Wolverine would make his true intention known to his friends, X-Men, Avengers…all of them.
As Logan embarks on his final mission, with the full support of the heroes, he remarks, “I’m done with guilt. Time for a little responsibility.”
Right there, a few issues earlier than we expected, is the moment Wolverine died.
Logan no longer struggles with his morals, he tricked us briefly, but James Howlett has finally come to peace with who he is. His final assault on Victor Creed is the last adventure we will see for the foreseeable future, and is really just icing on the cake. Personally, outside of flashbacks and other media, I hope this is Wolverine’s final rest.
He deserves it.
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